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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004

Japan jumping headfirst into the future

The Japanese "get no respect, no respect at all." That trademark line from American comic Rodney Dangerfield certainly applies to the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Last August when I interviewed Koizumi in his official Tokyo residence, I asked him point-blank if Japanese troops really would be sent to Iraq, as U.S. President George W. Bush had all but begged. Though Koizumi looked me in the eye and said, unequivocally, yes -- it was only a question of when and how many would go -- I was not convinced.

Today, Japanese troops are now inside embattled Iraq, about 1,000 of them. This counts because Koizumi had to move a mountain to achieve even that modest level of deployment. Not only was the Diet forced into passing legislation to get around constitutional restrictions inhibiting forward troop movements, but the prime minister himself expended considerable personal political capital to overcome an unenthusiastic Japanese public.

And he had to confront the rest of Asia, which was unhappy, too. Having felt the crushing brutality of Japanese invasions and occupations during the last century, it was in no mood to cheer Japanese troop deployment to Iraq or anywhere else.

Was Koizumi's move just an obvious effort to placate the United States? Recall that during the first Iraq war a decade or so ago Japan was bitterly criticized for doing little more than writing out a multibillion-dollar check to Washington, while pointedly not putting its own forces at risk to help. Koizumi was determined this time to keep Japan out of that wimp-out wringer.

To its credit, his government was also determined to ease Asia's worries that assisting the U.S. would resurrect voracious Japanese militarism. And so for months Tokyo diplomats have been at pains to explain the reasons for the decision, the nature of the forces being sent (mainly humanitarian and engineering) and the limited precedent being established. China was a particular target of the diplomatic offensive.

"Tokyo has done a very good job of laying out its case," a well-known Asian diplomat told me. "It has been absolutely exhaustive in this regard, doing everything possible to assuage concerns, and to provide whatever information was requested. In fact, rather than being criticized, it should be praised. This is the kind of cooperation and regional communication that benefits everyone."

But not everyone will be easily persuaded. The wartime scars still have not healed. Indeed, among the older generation of Chinese, they never will. The distrust of Japan is almost genetically embedded. If you polled most Asians over 40 years of age about which country would be more likely to start the next war -- China or Japan -- the vote would go to Japan. Americans don't understand that.

The fear is unfair, of course, especially to younger generations of Japanese who had absolutely nothing to do with their country's sordid imperial past. Even so, it is no secret to Asians that Japan has quietly built up one of the most technologically advanced militaries. How it will perform in Iraq, of course, is unknown. But the units there are superbly equipped and trained.

Japan has its fingers crossed that, through some miracle, no soldier will die in Iraq. Some will, probably; if many do, Koizumi will face a heavy political price.

Even so, he has on the whole made the right decision. It is right not only because it supports Japan's closest ally, but also for two other reasons. The first is that Japan can play a quietly constructive role in bridging the gap between an Islamic Asia and a Christian West. It is a nonwhite, largely Buddhist culture that can be an honest broker in the so-called clash of civilizations.

"People there will talk to us more freely than they might to a Christian America," asserts a veteran Japanese diplomat.

The prime minister also believes that Japan must begin to transform itself into a more normal nation, one not psychologically imprisoned by its past. It's absurd that Japan's military has had no higher profile than park rangers or school-crossing guards.

To this end, the Koizumi government has only begun to move forward, of course, but start it has: "The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." That's a Chinese proverb, but a fitting one.

To be sure, many in Japan fervently believe that the Iraq deployment is the beginning of the end of a nonaggressive Japan, and vile darkness lies ahead. Perhaps, but let us take the opposite view.

Let us agree that he who blames Japan for even trying to normalize itself condemns Japan to failure even if its success is lurking just around the corner.

UCLA Professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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